I remember: it was unusually warm that night. I carried the specimen case while John brought his lenses and books. The dark, narrow streets were as strange to us as the new species we were certain of finding, but I felt no fear. Many mistake me for only a wife, but I have many talents: I have studied both Latin and Greek, I can manipulate the lenses, I have a fair knowledge of classification. I complement John, I know this; without me his work would not be so quickly approved by the Academy.
But I am digressing. Forgive me. This night, I cannot approach it directly—
and how I loathe to say that I cannot, no matter the topic.
It was a warm night, and the streets were very narrow, very dark. I carried the case, which I held before me like a pot; John cradled the lenses in one arm, the books in a satchel he clutched tightly in his free hand. We were pressed for time and unsure of our way. I heard songs, songs I had never heard before, from the little houses we passed; I saw dark figures in doorways and alleyways, I heard the muffled noises of fierce quarrels, filled with anger and hate. The windows seemed to have rags for curtains, there were feces in the gutters. The whole of the area had a peculiar odor, for which I had no reference, save perhaps my mother’s sickroom before she died. Never before had I felt such an absence of humane comfort in a place.
And then we came to an open square, though with neither statue nor church, only the same grimy houses on all sides. Our ship, we knew now, lay just beyond, waiting for us. Hurry, John said, we must hurry, and we rushed across the beaten ground.
I remember: a flurry of movement, as if two figures were scuffling, at the far right of the square. And then I saw a young man, his face still boy-plump, running towards us yet seemingly heedless of his surroundings.
He careened straight into us; I lost my footing and fell. The specimen case flew up and struck my chin, though thankfully it managed to stay intact. There was a strange, metallic slithering on the ground near my head. John, who had managed to stay upright, rushed to my side. He laid down his own baggage and helped me to my feet, holding my arm until I had mastered myself once more.
It was then that the boy cried out. Not before; he made no sound before; I would have thought him clear away, if he had not cried out.
We had difficulty seeing him, in the darkness, but at last we saw him huddled on the ground, with a man standing over him. I do not know where the man came from. He was older and swarthy and he had a piece of metal, long like a pipe or a bar, and he was beating the boy with it. It was terrible. Up and down, up and down, while the boy whined and cried at his feet like an animal. Never have I seen such savagery, as if it were not enough to injure, to punish. The man’s face was black with anger, and I could hear the boy weeping, but I could no longer see his face—
Forgive me. If I could have just a moment.
I remember . . . I know I said John. And again, I said it louder, John! And he turned my face away, he held me close, telling me the truth of it: we could not interfere, we were strangers in these parts, we knew nothing of the circumstances. That there was no law among these people, not as we understood the word to mean. That we needed to go to our ship.
More people had started to come by then, I do not know where they came from. It was as if all those dark, ugly houses, they were like rabbit warrens. I have never seen so many people. They crowded around, and some took the man aside and they were shouting and arguing, and then they began shoving and I was certain there would be a brawl. Others, I know, carried the boy somewhere, I know not where. I know not.
And I took up the specimen case, and John picked up his lenses and his books, and we continued on to meet our waiting ship and set sail at first light.
I know that boy is dead. No creature could have survived such violence.
I know that, and I know that when I stooped over to pick up the specimen case, I saw something. A locket. A cheap brass locket. The kind of flimsy gewgaw you can get in any market. That was what had fallen beside me, what I heard was its chain tangling atop itself.
And I am haunted now. That such a trifle might have been the cause of their dispute, something we could have bought by the dozens, on the spot. That it might have been a talisman, a cherished memento, and the boy died without it. That I left it there, that I did not pick it up, that I did not speak, that in the time it took me to settle my foolish nerves and listen to John, in all that time we might have done something—
I am sorry. I am sorry to lay this before you. But I cannot tell John, what if he thinks me too frail to travel? I do not want to spend my days alone, I want to explore, I want to learn. But I had thought myself capable of understanding, no matter how strange a land we would find ourselves in; yet how can I place any faith in my powers of comprehension, when I do not even understand the people who occupy our own country, who live mere miles from our own village?